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November 9, 2002
Column #1106

What the Election Means for Marriage

     President Bush had a dazzling victory, the first Republican President ever to gain seats in Congress in an off-year election. The Republican Senate offers great hope for marriage.

     Among the President's proposals which ran into a Senate logjam was his reform of welfare to make marriage a priority with $300 million to test strategies to increase two-parent families. Why? "Strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for families," Bush said.

     Traditional welfare almost enticed poor women to have children outside of marriage. The out-of-wedlock birthrate soared from 7.7 percent in 1965 to 33 percent, 1.35 million children a  year. They are five times more likely to live in poverty and depend on welfare, 2-3 times more apt to have behavioral problems, to drop out of school, and give birth as a teen or be arrested.

     However, nearly half of unwed mothers are living with the fathers at the time of the child's birth and 80 percent are romantically involved. To promote marriage to the couple at that "magic" moment could bring important benefits to their children. 

     "We believe the government should be involved in promoting healthy marriages," says Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Wade Horn. "Healthy marriages are good for children and unhappy marriages are bad for children. If you care about the welfare of children it is reasonable to help couples, who choose marriage for themselves, to acquire the skills and knowledge to form and sustain healthy marriages."

     Like what? "Premarital education, marriage enrichment programs, public education campaigns and we would like to innovate with community-wide demonstration programs where a community puts together an initiative to try to promote marriage on a community-wide basis, with a focus on couples who are on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (welfare) or who are in danger of falling into TANF," Horn said the day after the election.

     Rep. Wally Herger, who successfully guided the President's proposal through the House, adds, "I can't think of too many things more important than doing what we can to help insure that every child has the benefit of having two parents, a married mother and father. It is difficult enough to raise children with two parents," said this father of eight children. He notes the marriage initiative is only 2 percent of the $16.5 billion in TANF and $4.8 billion in day care.

     When the President's welfare reform bill was considered by a Senate committee, its core ingredients, which lifted 3 million children from poverty and cut welfare dependence in half, were tossed aside and $10 billion was added in new spending. The marriage provision was cut by a third to $200 million and it could be spent on programs that have nothing to do with marriage - child care.

     Bush's bill is much more likely to pass in the Republican Senate. 

     What could be funded are initiatives like one that can be seen in a blighted area of Reading, Penn. Five different classes of 6-12 couples are being taught PREP, a course to help couples improve their skills of communication and conflict resolution.

     "This is exactly what I need," said one young man married only two months. "It will help me to learn how to make this relationship work." Another couple, an Hispanic man and a black woman, told Rev. Calvin Kurtz of the Reading-Berks Conference of Churches, "You told us that our marriage might not work. You were right. We are separated, but we are going to PREP together. If we had this when we started out, we would not have gone through so many problems."

     The Conference of Churches has received a $700,000 grant for four years to offer the course for free to every couple in an area where 22,000 poor live. Its goal is to increase the marriage rate and reduce out-of-wedlock births. Ten churches offer it.

     Why? "The church has not done its job. If it had, we would not need it." Kurtz responded candidly. "The church has not walked in unity, and has not had full impact on society. We have not lived marriage in our church community. But we have a responsibility to work at the covenant of marriage."

     Few realize this sort of program can be funded right now through TANF, the current welfare program. In Oklahoma, $1 million of TANF funds has been spent to train hundreds of welfare case workers and public health nurses to teach PREP. 

     However, few places like Reading or Oklahoma have taken this initiative. 

     That's why the President's $300 million marriage demonstration program is so innovative and needed. 

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